Less a rock musical and more Now That’s What I Call Music 1066, Knights of the Rose at the Arts Theatre threatens a return to the dark ages
“Would you tremble if I touched your lips?
Or would you laugh?”
The website for Knights of the Rose leads with the quote “is this the most epic rock musical?” and bold as that is, well, the answer is most definitively no. That much is evident from the start as a bunch of medieval knights start doing some slo-mo running on the spot as they return from war. But even as they dream of the ale to be drunk, the Bon Jovi songs to be sung, the wenches to be laid and other such Olde Worlde fare, a Knight’s lot is never done and a new battle upends their world once again. Sacrifice! Betrayal! Bonnie Tyler! In a time when Bat Out Of Hell can come back, maybe the rock musical is having a moment.
But wait, what the hell is Enrique Iglesias doing in here? Not only is ‘Hero’ a fantastically misjudged choice of song, the way in which its first line is used to lead into the track snaps you right out of the world of the show, as evidenced by an audience rolling in the aisles. It was the funniest thing I’ve seen in a theatre this year made all the more so by the fact that it was not meant to be at all hilarious. An edited snippet of No Doubt’s ‘Don’t Speak’ feels similarly incongruous, ‘He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother’ pops up in a po-faced moment and overall, as the playlist starts to sound like Now That’s What I Call Music 1066, you begin to worry for the identity of this show which ultimately takes the idea of being a rock musical as seriously as fancy dress.
This pick’n’mix attitude from ‘creator’ Jennifer Marsden is also reflected in a book which picks willy-nilly from classical allusions – an Aethelstan here, a Horatio there, a Palamon looking on moodily from the side (and don’t worry if you think you’ve missed one as every, single, reference is included in the programme…). The melodrama of this knight fancying that girl who fancies that knight, or a different knight fancying another girl who fancies his brother (maybe) proves more Hollyoaks than Henry V. And that wouldn’t be a bad thing if Racky Plews’ production leant in at all to its inherent silliness, embraced the camp along with the Chaucer.
But the moment where the horses’ heads look like they’re going to do the iconic Queen pose from the Bohemian Rhapsody never happens, and the bit where a woman duets with her dead fiancé on ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ is entirely straight-faced (from the company if not the audience…) and morris dancing is used unironically. And the riotous sense of baffling anarchy that at least makes the first half enjoyable is sapped away after the interval as a dull seriousness takes over.
I’d pay good money to hear Matt Thorpe unleashing a gorgeous unaffected rock vocal on Bon Jovi’s ‘Always’ again, ‘Holding Out For A Hero’ clicks neatly into place as a boudoir ballad as princesses wait for their war heroes to return, and Chris Cowley’s glowering Sir Palamon is suitably over-the-top. But no amount of dry ice can cover up the serious deficiencies here, not least an all-white cast (I’ll wait until they’ve finished singing REM and Muse before you launch into a historical accuracy argument…). One for the ages, the Dark Ages.